England crashed out of the World Cup against an all too familiar backdrop of heroic failure and agonising over yet another crucial missed penalty in a major championship.
But as the Three Lions packed their bags on Sunday there was much about the circumstances of their exit that felt like a break from the past.
No anguished wailing about tactical failings or technical ineptitude. No demands for a root-and-branch review of English football, and no calls for a change of manager.
Instead, a growing consensus that Gareth Southgate should — if he wants to — be allowed to continue for at least one more tournament.
The 52-year-old manager was roundly lambasted after his team’s two previous tournaments, blamed for an inability to tweak his gameplan mid-course during the 2018 World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia and last year’s European Championship final defeat to Italy at Wembley.
Yet as the desert dust settled on Saturday’s 2-1 loss to France, few were accusing Southgate of tactical incompetence.
Southgate’s decision to go on the front foot against the world champions, opting for a 4-3-3 formation, came within a whisker of paying off.
“We wanted to go toe to toe, we felt that was the way we wanted to approach the tournament,” Southgate said afterwards. “We’ve done that.”
“We’ve had consistent performances across three tournaments but tonight is probably the best we’ve played against a major nation across the period that I’ve been in charge.
“But we have fallen short and the scoreline is all that matters and that’s hard to take.”
Southgate’s current contract runs through to the end of 2024, meaning he will have the chance to lead England at the next European Championship.
The England manager, however, said that he plans to take time to reflect on his future before deciding whether to stay or go.
‘I hope he stays’
“I’ve got to be sure that whatever decision I make is the right one,” Southgate said.
“I think it’s right to take a bit of time to do that because I know in the past how my feelings have fluctuated in the immediate aftermath of tournaments.”
Southgate may perhaps be persuaded to stay by the array of talent that should remain at his disposal through the next tournament cycle.
The average of Saturday’s England starting line-up was 26. The core of the team should still be available for years to come. Players such as Jude Bellingham (19), Phil Foden (22), Bukayo Saka (21) and Declan Rice (23) are still maturing.
Southgate hinted that the age profile of his squad may persuade him to see out his contract.
“There is so much to be excited about when you see the age of a lot of the players,” he said, before adding, ruefully: “But you still have to win games that are winnable to reach semi-finals and finals.”
Southgate may also be tempted to bear in mind the example of his continental counterparts.
Former Germany coach Joachim Loew only tasted tournament success at the fourth attempt while France manager Didier Deschamps has been in charge of Les Bleus since 2012.
Southgate’s players are adamant their manager should remain in charge.
“I hope he stays,” said Rice. “There’s a lot of talk around that. He’s been brilliant for us. There’s a lot of criticism that’s not deserved.”
Harry Kane, who missed a late penalty against France that would have levelled the scores at 2-2, also hopes Southgate stays.
“We love having Gareth as a manager and we want him to stay for sure but that’s his decision,” Kane said.
“We’ve got a great team, great young players kind of coming into their prime, and we’ve got the Euros not too far away. So as much as this hurts we have to move on and look forward to that.”
Former players also joined the chorus of support.
“England are in a pretty good place, let’s be clear about that,” was the verdict of former Manchester United captain Gary Neville.
“We’ve gone out of tournaments in disgrace and wondered what the hell the future is. We have a great future and he is a big part of that.”
Neville’s former Manchester United team-mate Roy Keane agreed. “He’s done a fantastic job,” Keane said. “Does he want to give it a couple more years? Hopefully he does.”
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